Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Promise of learning standards unfulfilled --

From the May 12, Roanoke Times. (Thanks to Susan Ohanian's site.) This is a powerful letter from a parent. This is for all of you that believe these high stakes tests do no harm.

Betsy Biesenbach

Biesenbach, of Roanoke, is a free-lance writer and a paralegal.

In 1977, I was enrolled in what was then Radford College. As with most bachelor's degree programs, ours required several courses that were not directly related to our majors, but intended rather to turn us into well-rounded people.

I vividly remember the first day of Art 101. The professor stood in front of the class with a slide of Leonardo DaVinci's "The Last Supper" projected on the screen behind him. He was trying to explain perspective by pointing out that the landscape you see in the window behind the foreground figures looks realistic because it was painted from the viewpoint of someone who would be standing in the room. Apparently there were several people who had never heard of the concept, and just weren't getting it.

Finally, in desperation, the professor said: "It's like train tracks going off in the distance."

And a voice piped up from the back of the room: "I don't see no train tracks in that there pitcher."

I realized right then that the education I had received in well-to-do Fairfax County was vastly different from that which students in other parts of the state had gotten. So in the mid-'90s, when I heard that Virginia was instituting a Standards of Learning test, I thought it was a great idea. Why, I reasoned, shouldn't a kid living in the Northern Neck or far Southwest Virginia have the same opportunities I had?

Now that I have a child in public school, I have changed my mind completely.

I should have known something was up when I went to back-to-school night during my son's second-grade year. There was a stack of shiny textbooks piled on his desk. I stared at them, befuddled. In the two years my son had been going to school, he'd never brought any books home. "We only use them for reference," the teacher explained. "There aren't any textbooks that have everything we need for the SOLs."

This year, my son is in third grade, and after the winter break, he began bringing home thick sheaves of closely typed study guides.

The instructions said he was supposed to study the material, but not memorize it - a pretty tall order for what turned out to be nothing more than lists of questions and answers.

We dutifully went through the lists, and I quickly discovered that he already knew most of the answers.

"We go over it in school," he explained. And indeed they do. In addition to the classroom time, there is before school tutoring, and parents are expected to go over the material every night as well.

At first I was grateful that I had a child who could memorize easily - and then very, very sorry for parents who don't. But I wondered what he was not being taught during the time the class spends cramming for the test. Apparently, plenty.

A teacher friend of mine told me that often her students will ask questions she doesn't have time to answer because the subject is not on the SOL test.

My son and I went back to one of the questions he didn't know. The answer was "opportunity cost." Neither of us knew what it meant.

"We haven't studied it yet," he said.

"Then why is it on your homework assignment?" I asked. "Because it's on the test," he replied, shrugging his shoulders.

My teacher friend also told me that much of the subject matter has no relation to the children's lives. Her best students can tell her all about Greece and Rome and Egypt, but none of them can point out Virginia on a map.

What's more, she said, most of her students will not pass the test no matter how hard they try. Many of them come from disadvantaged backgrounds and others have learning disabilities or don't even speak English, none of which is taken into account.

Another friend told me that when her daughter got a "D" in third-grade math, she just assumed the child was getting remedial help.

But because she had passed the SOL, she didn't qualify and was sent to the fourth grade without ever really understanding the material.

I don't blame my son's teachers for wasting his time on this test.

In fact, I admire them for even getting out of bed in the morning and coming to work. I'm sure their training did not prepare them to teach children to merely parrot the answers to questions dreamed up by someone who may never have set foot in a third-grade classroom. I also don't blame the principals, the school administration or the school board, whose jobs are hanging on the test scores.

I blame the people who thought up this test and the ones who have implemented it so that our schools pass or fail based only on this one criterion. I blame the people who turned a really good idea into something that has nothing to do with educating our children, and which, in the end, will probably turn many of them off to learning.

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